Augmented engagement: The medium AND the message

What springs to mind when we think about engaging digital learning? Are flashy graphics, groundbreaking animations, immersive simulations and cinematic video obscuring the importance of clear messaging and reliably-delivered behaviour change? Learning Designer Adele Combes looks at wider digital trends influencing the way we live to anticipate changes in the way we learn.

Let’s start by asking: what makes for engagement? The Pokémon Go phenomenon was a true example, perhaps the best example in the post-digital age of smart storytelling, with clear messaging (Gotta catch ’em all!) and great tech design coming together to capture the public imagination. Suddenly, a huge group of people were highly engaged in something that didn’t even exist the week before. Partly because it was a snapshot of their youth, reimagined, reshaped for today and offering something they could only have imagined in the playground aged 12. However, for all that is viral, there is the waterfall effect of popularity where everyone wants to be involved and part of something. Thanks to this augmented reality game, usually lonely and soulless business parks are being transformed at lunchtime into spaces of play and connection; teenagers who never leave their bedrooms are rediscovering cardio exercise by going out and walking their neighbourhoods for hours to level-up their Pokémon scores.

Surely Niantic, P-Go’s triumphant developers, have smashed the problem of engagement? Now, how can we use these lessons to grab the attention of the same average millennials who return to their desks for another eight hours and now have some compliance training to complete?

Many will focus on the graphics, the tech, the format, layout – basically the visual and the functionality. But, what if the words make a difference? True, the technology and functionality are certainly what makes the Pokémon Go app stand out from the Gameboy or trading card iterations of the same brand, but when it comes to learning, the words are powerful. When you’re communicating an important message, if the actual content isn’t effective and accurate, you’re going nowhere. The learner will not learn. For example, imagine the most fun and inspiring school lesson. The children are immersed; it’s not actually learning or even ‘edutainment’ – it’s just an afternoon’s distraction. Therefore, the challenge is to get the perfect mix of engaging fun along with effective learning design principles.

How can this be done? Never take your eyes off the message. Focus on one question: What is the learning outcome? It’s about fitting the ‘experience’ – the process the learner will go through and be changed by – to the learning, not creating the wider idea and then fitting the message into it. However cool your new layout idea might look, if it doesn’t get the point across and fit your learning need, scrap it and don’t even try to squeeze it in! It has to work.

Remember the dancing pony advert? Can you remember what it was for? Even if you can, what was the point of it? The tagline at the end for the Three mobile network was: “Silly stuff. It matters. Keep on internetting #DancePonyDance.” Was it a success? It was certainly memorable, (come on, it’s a moonwalking horse) but was there enough of a connection to what it was advertising? The same applies to digital learning products. The learner may have come away having enjoyed the experience, but actually have no idea why it just happened because the point is so subtle or has been shoehorned in.

During a long production process, it can be hard to do this, but once you’ve created your digital learning concept, go back and check that the message hasn’t been lost. Does it still stand out? Inevitably, with lots of different input from various stakeholders (and therefore varying degrees of learning design understanding), lots of editing can either remove a carefully formed flow, or water down the strength of the message. It takes a ruthless step back to revisit the concept and the phrasing to check they’re still working together and complementing each other. Ultimately, will the learner know what the point of the learning was and have they taken on board the changes their organisation requires?

This experimental interactive simulation about surviving a nuclear war does just that. As the learner, you know the point the whole way through; you’re making decisions, seeing the impact and watching the consequences in a way that you’re learning as you go. Without realising, you’ve learnt about what a nuclear bomb could be like, the effects on health, the social chaos, the need for food and water, and the dangerous threats such as contaminated rain. This is presented by impressive graphics, transitions, animations and videos, but, they’re all used for a reason and strengthen the experience and the message. It’s a game yes, but the message is clear and succinct and the medium fits this in an engaging way.

Getting this right in workplace digital learning works for everyone. The learning experience is meeting (well, hopefully surpassing) the learner’s expectations, their learning needs and is in line with the organisation’s requirements. It’s been 20 years since a wise (and rich, and successful) man declared that, “Content is king.” This is truer than ever as we create learning solutions with far more technical capability around us. Let’s not allow this to be a distraction, but make the most of the endless opportunities to create clear and engaging solutions that effectively communicate the message.

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